Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Prayer, Psalmody, and Liturgical Praxis, according to Evagrius.

Evagrius Ponticus offers his audience a wide birth of topics to consider and a deep well of wisdom to integrate. Every so often Evagrius and other monastic authors supply us with principles or practices that could, if initiative is taken, inform our liturgical praxis. The Psalms play an integral part in the Roman rite of the Mass and are the essence of the divine office. It would seem, then, a good idea to look at some advice Evagrius provides in this treatise on prayer.

"Pray as is fitting and without trouble, practice psalmody with understanding and harmony, and you will be like a young eagle soaring in the heights." Prayer 82

Evagrius' recommendation to practice psalmody with understanding is, centuries later, an indictment of typical Western liturgical praxis. Seldom do we study the liturgy beyond rubrics. Doe we understand what is we pray? Do we have any desire to understand? Understanding has many levels, however, to understand something, one must acquire understanding at its various levels. What is this mean, in concrete terms. For one, the various proper participants of the Roman liturgy ought to devote more time to studying the liturgical books belonging to their role. Lectors, for one, ought to possess a copy of the Roman lectionary and they ought to study it. Yet, ideally, that shouldn't be as far as it goes. Although the liturgical role of Latin should well vary parish to parish, studying the liturgical books in Latin can only be beneficial, if only for the chance to see what the text subtly communicates in Latin as opposed to English or any given vernacular. Evagrius also reminds us that prayer and psalmody are properly understood as charisms and, he implies, we receive this gift on God's time, not our own. (Prayer 87) This is not a contradictory statement on the part of Evagrius nor, as we would say in modern parlance, anti-intellectual of him. Understanding of prayer, psalmody, and, in so far as psalmody is liturgical, liturgy is ultimately supernatural. 

In Evagrius' context, this charism was received in the process of the ascetic pursuit, the discipline of the body and will to God. Do we all need to be ascetics? It depends. There is, I would argue, asceticism in principle and the various models of ascetic practice. Maybe our liturgical praxis would improve if we were a little bit, just a little bit, ascetic in principle. Maybe.

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